Bacteriophages to the Rescue

[First published in The Scientist] Earlier this year I gave a presentation to public-health students undergraduates about options for controlling pests and pathogens that didn’t depend on industrial-age chemicals such as antibiotics and pesticides. When I asked if they’d ever heard of phage therapy—the use of bacteria-attacking viruses to fight infection—I was met with blank stares. When I finished sharing stories of desperate patients miraculously cured of antibiotic-resistant infections within days, I sensed a bit of skepticism, as if the crowd’s politeness was keeping them from asking: “If it’s so effective, how come we’ve never heard of this?” In this age of alternate truths and quack cures, it’s an appropriate question.

But phage therapy is nothing new, nor is it some fringe remedy. It was first used to cure Shigella infections early in the 20th century, to miraculous effect (although at the time, scientists were unaware of the nature of viruses). Once treated with phages isolated from fecal samples of spontaneously recovering dysentery sufferers, patients’ Shigella-induced fevers and bloody stools subsided within 24 hours. (See “Viral Soldiers,” The Scientist, January 2016.) Within a decade, pharmaceutical companies on both sides of the Atlantic began developing various phage therapies. But then came antibiotics. And poor production practices by some pharmaceutical companies (some commercial products in the U.S. were found to be lacking in potency, for example) led to a couple of damning reviews of phage therapy in the Journal of the American Medical Association. All of this helped to close the door on phage therapy in Western medicine. The Cold War kept that door closed for decades to come. [For more please see “Bacteriophages to the Rescue” and note correction: Shigella is caused by a bacterium not a virus as indicated in the online version.]

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